The 12-day itinerary includes some of the South Island's greatest experiences. It begins in Nelson, at the top of the South Island, and ends in Queenstown, near the bottom. Between these two towns you'll get the chance to try some of New Zealand's finest wine in its largest wine-producing region, Marlborough; spot whales in Kaikoura; see glaciers and glacial lakes at Mt. Cook; cruise on iconic Milford Sound; try adventure sports in the adrenaline capital of New Zealand, Queenstown; and much more.

Highlights

  • Sip some of New Zealand's finest wines in Marlborough
  • Go on a whale-watching tour in Kaikoura
  • See a calving and melting glacier at Mt. Cook
  • Cruise on Milford Sound and marvel at one of New Zealand's most famous scenes

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Welcome to the South Island Nelson
Day 2 Nelson to Blenheim Blenheim
Day 3 Blenheim Blenheim
Day 4 Blenheim to Kaikoura Kaikoura
Day 5 Kaikoura to Christchurch Christchurch
Day 6 Christchurch to Mt. Cook Mount Cook Village
Day 7 Mt. Cook to Wanaka Wanaka
Day 8 Tour Wanaka Wanaka
Day 9 Wanaka to Te Anau, Via Queenstown Te Anau
Day 10 Te Anau to Queenstown, Via Milford Sound Queenstown
Day 11 Free Time in Queenstown Queenstown
Day 12 Depart Queenstown  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Welcome to the South Island

Nelson
Nelson

After arriving at small Nelson Airport, you'll transfer to your hotel in the central city.

Depending on your time of arrival and energy levels, you can make a trip to the lovely strip of white sand at Tahunanui Beach, hike the short distance up to the Centre of New Zealand for panoramic views, or enjoy a meal in the center of town.

Day 2: Nelson to Blenheim

Blenheim

Today, transfer from Nelson to Blenheim, about two hours' drive away. After your arrival in the Marlborough region's biggest town, enjoy a unique wine-tasting experience at The Wine Station. You'll be provided with a tasting card that will allow you to choose from a selection of 80 premium wines, hand-picked from across the Marlborough region. Choose a tasting, half or full-glass measure through special dispensing machines imported from Italy. This is an opportunity to try wines that you might not otherwise be able to sample.

Day 3: Blenheim

Enjoy the view over the Queen Charlotte Sound

Enjoy the very best of the Marlborough region today. Indulge in a glass (or more) of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc on a tour of two wineries in the morning, followed by lunch with a waterfront view. In the afternoon, cruise the spectacular Marlborough Sounds, a series of sunken valleys, and try some fresh local seafood (and more wine!) on board.

Day 4: Blenheim to Kaikoura

Dolphin watching in Kaikoura

Depart Blenheim and travel south along the coast to Kaikoura, a journey of about two hours. It's a very scenic drive, with the Kaikoura mountain range on one side and the Pacific Ocean coastline on the other. Kaikoura is a small town steeped in Maori history and legend, and is famous for its whales.

After your arrival, enjoy a whale-watching boat ride (weather permitting), where you may see magnificent sperm whales as well as New Zealand’s own tiny Hectors dolphin, fur seals, and royal albatross.

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Day 5: Kaikoura to Christchurch

Christchurch

From Kaikoura, travel south through the rolling hill country of North Canterbury, enjoying the beauty of its rural pastoral scenes, before reaching the 'Garden City' of Christchurch. The journey takes about 2.5 hours.

After your arrival in Christchurch, you can choose to rest up at your hotel or go out exploring the city. Must-see and do attractions include:

  • Christchurch Botanic Gardens
  • Punting on the Avon River
  • Cardboard Cathedral
  • International Antarctic Centre
  • Christchurch Tramway

Day 6: Christchurch to Mt. Cook

Mt. Cook

Leave Christchurch, and the coast, behind today and travel inland to the mountains. First cross the fertile Canterbury Plains, before arriving at Lake Tekapo. Visit the famous Church of the Good Shepherd, before continuing onto Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park.

After your arrival, head out on the remarkable Glacier Explorers tour. It's the only tour of its kind in New Zealand, and goes to New Zealand's largest glacier, the Tasman Glacier. Explore and learn about the ever-changing glacial landscape as you journey across the terminal lake in a custom-built MAC Boat with an experienced guide. Icebergs of every shape and size periodically tear away from the face of the glacier into the rapidly growing lake. Lateral moraines rear up almost 650 feet (200 m), reminding us of the scale and greatness that the glacier has reached in previous times.

With the effects of climate change taking their toll on New Zealand's glaciers, their retreat is imminent. Now, the Tasman Glacier is melting and calving at an exponentially increasing rate. In recent years, the Tasman Glacier has changed from a 'melting' to a 'calving and melting' terminus, resulting in a terminal lake that is rapidly increasing in size.

Day 7: Mt. Cook to Wanaka

Helicopter on the Tasman Glacier

In the morning, get ready for an unforgettable Tasman Glacier heli-hike experience. After breakfast, take a scenic flight over three ice falls. From your ski plane, marvel at the rock and ice debris transform to glistening white. Walk, hike, and snowshoe on the glacier. You may even see an iceberg in the glacier lake. All equipment will be provided, including a raincoat, over-trousers, boots, crampons, woolen socks, gloves, and a hat.

In the afternoon, travel from Mt. Cook Village to Wanaka, a journey of about three hours. Arriving in Wanaka in the early evening, you'll have time for a relaxing meal with views of Lake Wanaka if you wish.

Day 8: Tour Wanaka

Wanaka

Begin your day with a boat cruise on the pristine waters of Lake Wanaka to Mou Waho (20 minutes). Landing on the island you'll be greeted by bird song. Enjoy a 45-minute guided walk to the summit. Your guide will introduce you to the many and varied native plants on the island, plus you'll meet the resident family of buff weka birds, who are always eager to steal anything you happen to drop!

On the summit of Mou Waho you'll see the island's grand secret: a lake on top of an island! Stop for tea with commanding views of Lake Wanaka and the surrounding mountains. On your return to the boat, play your part in reforesting the island by planting your own native tree before returning to Wanaka for a well-earned lunch break.

In the afternoon you will experience the rugged beauty and solitude of Wanaka's spectacular high country, with a four-wheel drive journey through one of Wanaka's most historic stations (an alpine mountain farm). The tour offers a unique insight into Wanaka's history, heritage, and modern-day farming life. You'll be wowed by the mountaintop vistas high above Lake Wanaka. Breathe deeply and enjoy the pure mountain air as you take a leisurely stroll through alpine meadows and ancient forests. Discover the fascinating history of early farming life as you wander through the ruins of one of Wanaka's first farmhouses (from around 1865). Assist with checking traps as part of our predator control program, which helps bring native birds back to the area.

Day 9: Wanaka to Te Anau, Via Queenstown

Te Anau

Today, make the trip from Wanaka to Te Anau, via beautiful Queenstown. You'll just be changing buses in Queenstown, but don't worry: you'll spend more time in the town in a few days' time.

In the evening, after settling into your Te Anau hotel, go on a Glowworm Caves tour. The caves are reached via a boat ride across Lake Te Anau, which will give you a good overview of the scenic area.

Day 10: Te Anau to Queenstown, Via Milford Sound

Milford Sound

Today you'll enjoy one of New Zealand's most popular natural attractions: Milford Sound. Leaving Te Anau, you'll enter the Eglinton Valley and travel through the breathtaking Homer Tunnel through the mountains, to reach Milford Sound. Enjoy a cruise on this world-famous fiord, dominated by Mitre Peak and the cascading Bowen Falls. The scene is spectacular no matter the weather.

Return to Queenstown in the afternoon.

Day 11: Free Time in Queenstown

Queenstown

Today is yours to spend however you wish in Queenstown. There's a lot to see and do here, however active or relaxed you'd like to be. You could take a four-wheel drive minibus excursion through the highly scenic Skippers Canyon, or try bungee jumping, jet boating, white-water rafting, skydiving, a gondola ride to the lookout above the town, a hot spring experience with a view, a cruise on Lake Wakatipu on the TSS Earnslaw, and much more. 

Day 12: Depart Queenstown

Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown

Transfer to the airport in good time for your onward flight. Haere ra!

Map

Map of Highlights of New Zealand's South Island: Kaikoura, Mt. Cook, Queenstown & More - 12 Days
Map of Highlights of New Zealand's South Island: Kaikoura, Mt. Cook, Queenstown & More - 12 Days